Trey Burke makes the most of his return to Michigan
AUBURN HILLS — Trey Burke said all the right things Friday night.
It was his play on the floor that sent a direct message to Joe Dumars and Detroit’s front office. They passed him up in order to draft Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Burke showed them exactly how bad that decision looks right now.
Burke, playing in front of fans that cheered every shot he made, finished with 20 points and a career-high 12 assists as the Utah Jazz humiliated the Pistons 110-89.
Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Jennings, the point guard Dumars found after deciding against Burke, combined for 16 points and seven assists.
"We had a lot of fun out there tonight," Burke said after the game. "That went about as well as I could have hoped."
The game drew 18,528 fans, one of the best crowds of the season, and much of it was wearing Michigan maize-and-blue. They cheered when Burke took the floor for pregame warmups — running out by himself while his teammates stayed behind for a bit of hometown rookie hazing — and they roared when he was introduced in pregame warmups.
"It was like being back at Michigan again," he said. "We played here a few times in college, but tonight was like the NCAA tournament game against VCU.
"We were in this building, the fans were cheering for me, and we were having a great game as a team. This was fun, just like that one."
Before the game, Burke was asked if he had something to prove to the Pistons, and he gave an answer that sounded like a 10-year veteran.
"I would have loved to play for Detroit because I went to school here, it is close to home and I think I would have been a good fit for them," he said, showing a bit of diplomacy. "I have a perfect situation in Utah, but I always feel like I still have to prove myself.
"I’ll have a chip on my shoulder tonight, just like I do every night."
On top of his feelings about the Pistons, Burke was dealing with the pressure of playing in front of family, friends and all those Michigan fans.
"It was important to me that I play well tonight because my family and my people were here, and this is the only chance I’ll have to play in front of them this season," he said. "I didn’t want to make them wait a year to see me have a good game."
Burke struggled early, missing his first four shots and turning the ball over more than he did in a month at Michigan.
Midway through the second quarter, though, he had an assist and a 3-pointer in a 9-0 run that gave Utah a 44-37 lead.
"It was awkward for him early on, because he was excited, just like he should have been," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. "I left him out there because I wanted to let him play himself into a rhythm and because he was still throwing great passes."
Once Burke got going, his team was happy to ride the hot hand. Utah’s lead was 58-45 by the half, and the Jazz scored the first eight points of the third quarter to make it a 21-point game.
There were still 22 minutes left to play, but the Pistons were dead in the water.
"I’m not even going to lie, I was a little nervous out there," Burke said. "Once I got calmed down, though, I had a lot of fun."
Burke’s game probably didn’t change Dumars’ mind about the draft pick he made, but it added to what had to be a horrible night for the team president.
The Pistons were coming off a five-day break, playing at home and facing a 13-27 team that didn’t have its leading scorer.
Instead of coasting to a third straight win, though, the Pistons drifted through the game like a team playing out the string of a lost season.
"It was unexplainable to me," Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said. "Maybe, the days off affected us in terms of getting up and down the floor. Maybe, we were just off too long."
Cheeks did everything he could with a group of players who didn’t seem interested in helping. Four minutes into the third quarter, he had already yanked Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, chosing to try to rally with Will Bynum and Josh Harrellson on the floor.
It didn’t help — the Jazz led by as many as 29 down the stretch — but it showed how desperate Cheeks has already become.
"I was just looking for something else," he said about benching his highly vaunted frontcourt. "Nothing was working, and they were scoring at will. I had to try to change something up — do something different. That’s what I was trying to do."
In recent games, including the wins over Philadelphia and Phoenix, Cheeks has gone more to lineups that don’t include all three bigs. That lets Smith play at power forward or center, where he looks more comfortable than at small forward.
Saturday, he benched Smith and Monroe for most of the second half — something he’s done before when Smith has looked lethargic.
The problem for Dumars is that he can’t have many rolls of the dice left, and he has bet on Cheeks, the frontcourt and Jennings to be the foundation for the next good Detroit team.
Jennings starts games like the passing point guard that the coaches want, but as the second half arrives, he consistently falls back into his old habits of shooting first and only giving the ball up in an emergency.
Smith also tends to look for his shots first down the stretch, leaving the Pistons with a stagnant offense that has fallen apart time and again late in games.
There’s no easy solution, although vague rumors have floated about a trade of Monroe to try to build a more balanced roster.
Would Burke have been the answer? No. He might have been an improvement over Caldwell-Pope, and might have meant the Pistons didn’t have to trade for Jennings.
But it wouldn’t have fixed the effort issues or solved the problem of having too many post players on the floor.
Still, as Dumars watched his team go through the motions and get blown out by a bad team, it couldn’t have helped his mood to hear his fans cheering for the player they wanted all along.